The winter sunshine and warmth that greeted Joe Schmidt’s Ireland squad as they touched down in South Africa last Monday morning was gratefully received by the tourists as they ran the 11-hour flight out of their systems and took a dip in the Atlantic Ocean.
A winter like this, with 25-degree heat and clear skies, would suit most of us who call rain-sodden Ireland home but when the sunshine eventually gave way to rain on Thursday it was all too brief for the local population and millions beyond Cape Town, host city for this evening’s first Test between South Africa and the Irish.
For this is a drought-stricken country. Below-average rainfall, increased temperatures and poor water-related infrastructure resulted in the South African government declaring a state of disaster in all but one of the country’s provinces. That included here in Western Cape, the region which extends along both the Atlantic and Indian Oceans with the Cape of Good Hope and nearby Cape Town, nestled beneath the imposing Table Mountain, at its corner.
Farmers have been unable to harvest crops or feed livestock with anecdotal reports of malnourished animals being culled and families attempting to survive on just two meals a week.
The scarcity of food was a subject raised on an enlightening trip out to Robben Island, home in the middle of Table Bay of the former maximum security prison which once housed Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners between 1961 and 1991 who fought to overcome apartheid.
Mandela arrived there in 1964 and spent 18 of his 27 years on Robben Island with contemporaries viewed by the white National Party regime as mostly saboteurs and terrorists, three of whom have since led their country as President.
The prisoners spent their days quarrying limestone or breaking rocks in the merciless heat, denied hats or sunglasses to protect their skin or eyes from the blistering effects of the lime they were forced to work with. And at the end of each day they were sent back to tiny cells to sleep on a mat on the floor.
Today, the island and its prison, previously a leper colony, is a World Heritage site. Where previously prisoners were escorted off boats from the mainland in manacles and up to their life of servitude, tourists now clamber off catamarans to learn of the horrors of life behind bars there.
Ntando Mbatha was our guide and one with first-hand experience having served four years there between 1986 and 1990 on terrorism charges. With an amazing lack of bitterness on display, Mbatha described how even inside the prison there existed a regime of discrimination whereby “coloured” inmates, described as “Asiatics” were given more food than black Africans. He showed the cells that housed those future presidents of South Africa, Mandela, Kgalema Motlanthe, and current leader Jacob Zuma as well as prominent activists and African National Congress luminaries Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo as well as Tokyo Sexwale, who last year stood for the Fifa presidency.
Yet Mbatha considered they and he the fortunate ones. They had, after all, survived the struggle for freedom. Others paid the ultimate price, hanged in Pretoria or killed in police detention during that brutal regime. Mbatha recited many names from memory, recollecting former comrades who had died all too recently. South Africa has come a long way in the relatively short space of time since the prison on Robben Island was closed but not far enough in the eyes of some.
Today’s Test match at Newlands between Ireland and the Springboks was due to be the subject of a protest by members of the ANC Youth League who had vowed to disrupt this month’s three-game series to air their dissatisfaction at the lack of transformation in rugby.
The move came after Minister of Sport and Recreation Fikile Mbalula said last month he would not support sporting bodies that were lagging behind in transformation, halting the South African Rugby Union’s bid to stage the 2023 World Cup unless quotas for black players in national squads were introduced.
SARU denied it is dragging its feet on inclusiveness and can point to its naming of a non-white man, Allister Coetzee, as its new head coach of the Springboks, replacing Heyneke Meyer, as proof. Coetzee’s squad for the opening Test with Ireland featured 13 non-white players and a cessation of hostilities between the union and the ANCYL was announced on Wednesday “following positive engagements between the two bodies”, although not before ANCYL secretary general Njabulo Nzuza had said rugby still had much work to do.
By the eve of the game, Minister Mbalula had even visited the Springboks team hotel and sent them into today’s game with words of encouragement.
“The Springboks have a proud track record and you inspire people when you represent your country,” Mbalula told them. “You always play with such pride and passion, and I want to wish you well against the Irish.”
A small measure of reconciliation perhaps, but it’s a start.
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